A U.S.-Iranian dual citizen of the Zoroastrian faith and his wife have been given prison sentences and had their assets seized in a closed-door trial in Iran, according to the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC).
Karen Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari were sentenced to 27 and 16 years in prison respectively for “acts against national security,” DHRC founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi confirmed in an interview with Radio Farda January 29.
Niasari was the manager of a Tehran art gallery and Vafadari was a businessman.
DHRC sources say the judge in the case, Abolghassem Salavati, condemned the couple without any reliable evidence against them. Vafadari and his wife have repeatedly denied the charges.
Salavati is notorious for passing harsh sentences against dissidents and minorities.
The couple practice Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic faith with around 25,000 adherents in Iran, according to government statistics. Though religious minorities are officially protected by Iran’s constitution, in practice non-Shia Muslims are often subjected to discrimination and harassment.
Vafadari and his wife were detained by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) security agents on July 20, 2016 and kept in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for five months before being moved to a group holding cell.
The DHRC said in a statement that Vafadari had lived for years in the United States, but returned to Iran to legally claim estates he had inherited.
In a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Vafadari’s sister Kateh Vafadari, said in December 2016 that the couple had been subjected to “extortion, property seizure, and threats” since their arrest, and called for their immediate release.
Ms. Vafadari, who lives in Washington D.C., said Niasari was initially detained by IRGC agents at Tehran Airport in late July 2016 as she was about to board a flight to attend a family wedding abroad. She was ordered to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport. When he arrived, they were both arrested and taken to Evin prison.
Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on August 2, 2016 that the couple were accused of “organizing mixed-gender parties for foreign diplomats and their Iranian associates, and for having alcohol in their home.”
“The enemies of the revolution are engaged in organized corruption and depravity,” Dolatabadi said, claiming 4,000 liters of alcohol had been found at the couple’s home.
In a letter to Khamenei, she wrote “for religious minorities like Zoroastrians, there is no difference between an alcoholic or herbal drink. They are both consumed at home. Zoroastrians drink alcohol at mourning ceremonies and various traditional events as well. It is a normal part of life.”
The prosecutor’s statement did not mention the couple’s religion, which exempts them from some legal prohibitions on alcohol in the Islamic Republic, according to the DHRC.
According to Iran’s constitution, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians “are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
Referring to the couple’s case, Executive Director of the New York based Center For Human Rights in Iran Hadi Ghaemi said, “Yet another case of a dual national snatched and held without charge or access to a lawyer represents an alarming continuation of a judicial system run by intelligence agencies with no respect for the law and no accountability.”